Arranging for elephants

With the Twin Cities-hosted Republican National Convention around the corner, Southwest has joined the rest of the metro in preparing for an unprecedented stampede of guests  

In about two months, 45,000 people will converge on the Twin Cities to take part in an event the area hasn’t seen for more than a century.

The 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC), though based in St. Paul, will bring politicians, protesters, media and the national spotlight to the entire metro. Many Southwest residents, business owners and other stakeholders expect their community to be well attended during the Sept. 1–4 event and are preparing to roll out the welcome mats, make a little money and do a little showing off.

They’re also preparing for the hassles and headaches that accompany a major political event: congested streets, crowds of protesters and normal city life turned on its head, at least for a few days.  

Securing the city

The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) has been tight-lipped about its convention preparations, but Deputy Chief Rob Allen said there’s a simple reason for that: preventing people with bad intentions from getting the upper hand.

“We don’t want people to know how many officers we’ll have working the event, how many hours they’ll be working or what hours,” Allen said.

He said officers from throughout the department have been training for the convention in coordination with the lead agency in St. Paul, the U.S. Secret Service and other metro law enforcement agencies.

Police leaders have traveled to other convention cities including Boston, New York and Washington D.C. for tips on how to police such an enormous crowd, Allen said. 

Training for the convention began as soon as the location was announced in the fall of 2006, said Lt. Amelia Huffman, who oversees the MPD’s homicide unit.

Huffman will serve as a public information officer during the convention. She was the department’s spokeswoman after the I-35W bridge collapse and was asked to serve in the same role during the convention because of her experience gained with media and public outreach during the disaster.

Though she couldn’t comment on details, she said the MPD is ready for the event.

 “We’re very interested in making sure the city is secure so that regular citizens in Minneapolis can go about their business without disruptions,” she said. 

In Uptown, Officer Butch Blauert will be getting an extra hand during his daytime patrols; that’s about as much information as 5th Precinct Insp. Kris Arneson would divulge.

Blauert said he’s been plenty busy this summer dealing with transients in the area. He said he has already noticed more “travelers” than last year and he’s expecting to see more as the convention nears. 

“It’s a lot busier,” Blauert said. “There’s been an influx of travelers and they have completely inundated the whole area already. They say they’re just traveling through, but they’re not leaving.”

Getting around town

Anyone driving into Downtown should prepare for traffic congestion during the convention, especially on the first day, said Teresa Wernecke, executive director of Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization.

Wernecke said Sept. 2 typically is one of the most hectic days of the year for commuters because summer vacations have ended, students return to school and classes resume at the University of Minnesota. This year, authorities are expecting an additional 300 shuttle busses packed with conventioneers to crowd city streets.

“It’s going to be a pretty busy time,” she said.

Traffic will be worse in the afternoon than during morning rush hour, Wernecke predicted, because most of the big events in St. Paul are scheduled during the evening. Commuters are encouraged to carpool, walk or bicycle to work, or take public transit.

“We want people to come to work, because we want media and we want convention attendees to see and experience the vitality of Downtown,” she said.

Julie Johanson, assistant general manager for administration at Metro Transit, said updated information on detours and expected delays on bus routes would be available in about mid-August.

“Metro Transit is making a firm commitment to communicate any changes that will happen to our customers,” Johanson said.

A boost for business

Some Southwest businesses are hoping to see full buses rolling into their area.

At Tuthill’s Balloon Emporium, 2455 Hennepin Ave. S., co-owner Meg Tuthill is expecting to stay busy during convention week serving party planners. Her store has several bids in for large balloon projects already and Tuthill said she’s planning to be on call in early September.

“I think the best thing is to be as available as possible, to service them to death and hope that everyone will bring their families and their friends and their spouses and whoever else with them and come back and spend money here,” she said.

Chino Latino at Hennepin and Lake booked the entire restaurant for a single party from 9 p.m. to close for one night of the convention.

“We’ve never done it before and we probably wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the Republican convention,” said Chino Latino’s Executive Chef Noah Barton. “But there’s enough going on that we decided to do that. Normally we wouldn’t do it because we wouldn’t want to close the restaurant to our regular guests.”

The group that booked the entire restaurant was comprised of specialty doctors, Barton said. 

He said no additional staff was planned for the convention, but he guessed the restaurant would be full.

“There will be a lot of people in town, a lot of people wanting to dine out and I think that will be to our advantage,” he said.

Neither the LynLake Business Association nor the Uptown Association has been involved in any specific convention preparations.

But Thatcher Imboden, president of the Uptown Association, said area businesses would probably welcome the additional dollars, regardless of political persuasions.

“My goal would be that Uptown would be able to welcome everybody with open arms much like it has done with all sorts of different diverse groups over the years,” he said. 

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn said the neighborhood had prepared a brochure highlighting the dining options along Eat Street, a section of Nicollet Avenue in the neighborhood known for its many restaurants. The brochure, prepared by the neighborhood business association with the help of a Community Planning and Economic Development grant, will be distributed to convention-goers through the host committee and the Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

“We’re trying to get as much business driven here as possible,” Biehn said.

Eat Street establishments might be put at a disadvantage with nearby Downtown bars and restaurants allowed to serve alcohol until 4 a.m., but Biehn didn’t think that would be the case.

“I hope Republicans don’t see drinking as their only entertainment,” she quipped.

Arts exposure

Representatives of Southwest cultural institutions said they, too, stand to benefit from the influx of visitors and national media.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts was one of several museums planning an exhibit to coincide with the RNC and Civic Fest scheduled for Aug. 29–Sept. 4 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The Institute’s “Hail to the Chief: Images of the American Presidency,” features artwork and historic artifacts with presidential themes.

Mikka Gee Conway, assistant director for exhibitions and programs, said she hoped the Institute could draw some of the anticipated 150,000 visitors to CivicFest make the trip six blocks south to take in “Hail to the Chief.”

Phillip Bahar, marketing and public relations director for the Walker Art Center, said the convention was an opportunity to raise the Twin Cities’ profile as a cultural destination. In addition to all the delegates, about 15,000 members of the media are expected to visit the city, and the Walker is aiming to catch the eye of that influential audience, Bahar said.

Not only might they visit the museum or take a stroll through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, they’ll be looking for local landmarks to film for broadcast and local residents to interview for stories.

“I’m guessing the sculpture garden will be good for that,” Bahar said.

The Walker extended its exhibits for the 20th anniversary of the sculpture garden. Both “Design for the Other 90%” and artist-designed mini-golf will now run through Sept. 7.

“If you’re not the delegate but you’re with the delegate, you’re looking for other things to do on your trip,” he said.

“Design for the Other 90%” showcases design solutions to third-world challenges like economic development, access to clean water and improved health care. If some policymaker manages to sneak out of the convention, see the exhibit and learn something, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, Bahar suggested.

“We very intentionally put [“Design for the Other 90%”] on view at a moment when we knew the RNC was happening,” he said.